Eric Foner: The American civil war still being fought

[Eric Foner, a member of The Nation's editorial board, is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University and editor of Our Lincoln, a collection of essays recently published by W. W. Norton and author of Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction.]

One hundred fifty years ago, on 20 December 1860, the South Carolina secession convention officially dissolved the state's connection with the American Union. The secession of South Carolina set in motion a crisis that culminated in four years of civil war, the preservation of national unity and the destruction of the largest slave system the modern world has known.

Contemporaries had little doubt about the reasons for secession. With no support in the slave states, the Republican party had just elected Abraham Lincoln president on a platform committed to halting slavery's westward expansion. Lincoln himself had called slavery a "monstrous injustice" and had declared that the nation could not exist indefinitely half-slave and half-free. In explaining its decision, South Carolina's convention warned that the ultimate result of Republican rule would be "the emancipation of the slaves of the South".

Within a few months, 10 slave states had joined South Carolina in the Confederate States of America. Its founders forthrightly announced that they had created a slaveholders' republic. The new nation's "cornerstone", declared Confederate Vice-President Alexander H Stephens, was the principle "that slavery, subordination to the superior race" was the "natural and moral condition" of black Americans.

Four years later, in his second inaugural address, Lincoln would affirm that slavery was "somehow" the cause of the war. This is now an unquestioned axiom among historians. Yet, many Americans today resist this basic truth. They insist that differences over other issues – states rights, the tariff, constitutional interpretation – led the nation into war.

What does it mean to say that slavery caused secession and the war?..

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